Quick Take: The Past (2013)

Film still from The Past by Asghar FarhadiYou may remember The Past‘s director Asghar Farhadi from the acclaimed A Separation from 2011, which made my Top 10 from that year. Farhadi has a knack for communicating crucial pieces of his stories through the images onscreen rather than through dialogue, as if the stage directions written into included even the quickest glance between characters. This gives his movies an unmatched richness. The knock on The Past from some critics is that the final third is contrived. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think it’s any less compelling for it. Where A Separation showed us lives unraveling as a result of compounding mistakes, The Past peels back the layers of mistakes to show us how the lives have already unraveled.

Song of the Hour: “Get Lost” by Icona Pop

[Disclaimer: There's profanity in this song. Like quite a bit.]

We all know the real song of the hour is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”. We know this because apparently if you have a blog you were required to write a post about it. (Don’t worry, I’m writing a post about it tomorrow. I’ll fulfill my requirement.) But if we’re talking about which song has officially claimed “Song of the Summer” status for me for now, it’s Icona Pop’s “Get Lost”.

You kind of thought they were one-hit wonders, didn’t you? I did too, though the album that went along with “I Love It” was surprisingly strong; I just didn’t expect them to have another smash hit. And actually, I don’t think they have yet- “Get Lost” hasn’t found any traction on the charts and it only has a little over 100,000 views on YouTube. But to this humble listener, it’s up there with “I Love It”, both in quality and in potential-to-drive-you-crazy-after-the-seventeenth-spin.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” someone like Socrates once said, or maybe not, I’m not too sure. Oh, it was Thoreau, I just looked it up, and there were only two “simplify”s. Anyway, I’m sure he was thinking about pop music, and if he was, I’m sure he’d be a huge fan of Icona Pop. It doesn’t get much simpler than their choruses. And it’s not like they even make up for the lack of complexity by singing well; they basically just yell through every chorus. BUT IT WORKS. Tell me your head wasn’t bobbing as soon as that first “Let’s get lo-o-o-o-o-o-ost” chorus kicked in. Go on. Tell me. I’ll wait for your head to stop bobbing.

But it’s not like I’m listening to this song like it’s an anthem. When you pay attention to it, it’s comes off kind of sad. The idea of getting lost simply for the sake of getting lost doesn’t appeal to me at all. Or maybe it does, and I just don’t want it to. And maybe that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

guardians1It’s impossible to consider Guardians of the Galaxy apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s canon-so-far, but let’s try. Director James Gunn, he of the infectiously fun Slither and the notorious Super, fills the screen with characters both familiar and totally new. You watch as a computer-animated raccoon (Bradley Cooper) legitimately moves you with his tears. You see Chris Pratt, he of Everwood and Parks and Recreation, ripped and jacked in the most enviable ways possible, distract a megalomaniacal alien (Lee Pace) from destroying a planet by dancing to freaking Redbone. And you looked on as Groot (Vin Diesel), the most original sci-fi creation this side of Blade Runner, captured your heart with his fireflies, his eager-to-please smile, and his movin’ to the groovin’.

As much as Guardians is the product of a franchise, this is unlike anything you’ve seen on screen. It’s been said, but it’s still the best way to describe the experience: watching Guardians felt like what it must have felt like to see Star Wars for the first time. The difference is that we should have seen all of this before, because countless science fiction movies have been made since the original Star Wars trilogy. Not all of them were trying to replicate Star Wars’s blend of adventure and space epic, but enough tried to think that there would never be another success like it. It’s reductive, but it’s true: Guardians is the 21st century Star Wars.

guardians2I won’t pretend the plot of Guardians is revolutionary. The story is a patchwork of different things we’ve seen before: the dashing, nonchalant hero with a tragic backstory (Pratt’s Peter Quill, also [but hardly] known as Star-Lord); a ragtag group of misfits learning to work together for the greater good; a MacGuffin that everyone in the movie somehow needs; Benicio del Toro in de facto drag. But it’s the little things that make even the familiar story exceptional, like Drax’s (Dave Bautista) inability to understand anything beyond the most literal meanings, or the first time Gamora (Zoe Saldana) hears music, or John C. Reilly’s corpsman’s disbelief at all the Guardians’ apparent bloodlust. Gunn and screenwriter Nicole Perlman filled this blockbuster with animated characters that actually have their lines colored in.

The look of Guardians is exceptional as well. For all the Marvel films’ charms, each of them succumbs to a little bit of Christopher Nolan’s drabbing-down of their comic book worlds. In an attempt to add some of the grit and “reality” of Nolan’s Batman films, the colors in Marvel’s films are always a little bit muted. Guardians doesn’t have that problem; it has the opposite problem, if the opposite were in fact a problem. The colors in Guardians pop, assisting one of the few Marvel directors allowed some semblance of a style. There are images in Guardians I’ll have a hard time forgetting, including Groot’s firefly scene, the massive alien head that makes up Knowhere, and Peter Quill’s skin freezing in space.

guardians3Guardians is a singular movie, but I won’t pretend it will have the far-reaching influence of Star Wars. To be sure, Guardians is still part of a bigger franchise with bigger fish to fry than continuing any legacy that Guardians might have. But I’m holding out hope that Marvel and other studios will learn at least one thing from Guardians. While franchises like Marvel and The Hunger Games and How to Train Your Dragon have more monetary, corporate interests at heart, they have been able to subvert their more financial motivations by using them to tell great stories and put out respectable art. Guardians has restored my faith that blockbuster franchises can do even more than tell great stories; they can build worlds.

Song of the Hour: “Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie & Tae


I’m not a fan of most so-called “bro country” (I prefer “bluntry”, which is less weed-focused than you might think). But I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it; writing and singing songs about trucks, dirt roads and pretty girls seemed like an honest, if simple, way to go about making music. Maddie & Tae appear to disagree though. And after listening to a song this witty, how can I argue?

Country has always been sexist. Well, actually, the music industry has always been sexist. Well, actually, the world has always been sexist. You could probably make a video like this about any genre of music. But, chances are, it wouldn’t be as spot on as Maddie & Tae’s.

While their voices are pretty similar to *insert female country artist here*, they beat them all to the punch with this concept. Certain male country artists have already weighed in; you’d think they’d have a little humor about the whole thing, but apparently not. Regardless, “Girl in a Country Song” is essential listening for the self-aware country music fan. And btw, Maddie & Tae are EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD.

RIYL: Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, not bro country

Quick Take: Let the Fire Burn (2013)

letthefireburnThe oldest documentaries were simple displays of whatever the camera caught with very little editing. Only later did it become in vogue to fill the run time of a documentary with talking heads and artificial reenactments. Let the Fire Burn is refreshing in its use of only archival footage. There are no new interviews, no commentary from behind the camera. You’re given the story of the Philadelphia Police Department’s bombing of the headquarters of the MOVE Organization via filmed news segments from the time, former documentaries, and live (from 1985, that is) footage. This could have been boring, I suppose, the story is riveting. And the story is in the editing; director Jason Osder has sewn all the pieces together to show you that sometimes checks and balances aren’t enough to prevent injustice.

Quicker take: Ferguson wasn’t the first, nor was it the worst.

Best Movies of 2014 So Far

Now 2014 has been a terrible year for music, but a wonderful year for movies. Especially blockbusters. Month after month, big movies have impressed both creatively and financially. Only one of my favorite movies so far this year isn’t a blockbuster, and it was pretty popular in its own right. But see for yourself:

Movies

bestsofar1Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The strongest outing from a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet, except The Avengers, which is in its own class. The plot deftly takes every one of their franchises in a new direction, the action is the clearest we’ve seen yet in terms of execution and motivation, and Chris Evans continues to fill out the boundaries of Cap’s underratedly nuanced character. Now where’s our Black Widow movie? It can’t be any worse than Lucy.

bestsofar2Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Fascinating combination of visual effects and legitimate drama. The year’s best movie so far is about talking apes, and you can’t help but take it seriously. We live in strange times.

bestsofar3The Grand Budapest Hotel: Peak Wes Anderson is still 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom for me, but Grand Budapest Hotel comes close. But Kingdom was Anderson harnessing his powers; Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson unleashing them.

bestsofar4Guardians of the Galaxy: So remember how I said The Avengers is in its own class? Well, Guardians is in the same class, and it just set the curve. The Avengers sequel is gonna have to cram hardcore or pull several all-nighters to top this one. Pure chaos in a film reel. Or, I suppose, a USB drive, nowadays…

bestsofar5The Lego Movie: Speaking of chaos, I felt like this movie had enough for a whole year of movies. But, like James Gunn with Guardians, directors Lord & Miller know precisely how to modulate the craziness. It’s the kind of craziness a kid can relate to, but it all builds into a sweetness that isn’t sickly at the end, avoiding the trap most animated movies fall into.

Performances

Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy: Look, he’s not getting nominated for the Oscar or anything, but it takes a special performer to get the audience on your side when there are characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot on the screen. People are calling him the new Han Solo, which let’s all slow our rolls for a second, but give this movie a little time and I may come around on that. That’s how charismatic he is.

Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: He won’t be getting nominated either, but it’s only because there’s too many layers between his performance and what we see onscreen. The effects department obviously deserves some credit, but if you’ve seen Dawn, the fact that there is a real person emoting as Caesar is undeniable, and that emoting is magnetic for the entire movie.

Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars: Ansel Elgort has the flashier performance, but what Woodley has to do is more challenging. Her character, Hazel Grace, keeps the story grounded from its potential for sap. And it’s her appreciation for love in the end that allows the story to bring you to tears.

Most Anticipated Movies of (the rest of) 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings: After Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, the trailer for Ridley Scott’s Exodus makes me think this could be a banner year in great biblical epics directed by people who don’t believe the Bible.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1: Hard to top Catching Fire, but I’m excited to see Lawrence & Co. try.

Interstellar: I’ll follow Christopher Nolan anywhere at this point.

The Interview: I wonder if Kim Jong-Un will make a cameo.

Unbroken: I was skeptical of this sports-war movie, but the trailer blew me away. If they can give Louis Zamperini’s live even a modicum of the justice he deserves, this will be worth seeing.

Quick Take: Noah (2014)

noahI get the impression I’m supposed to hate Noah for not presenting the story of the great flood word for word from Scripture, but I don’t. I understand the concerns, but I’m more concerned that, in a year filled with “faith-driven” movies, the most thoughtful one was made by an atheist. There’s a lot of crazy stuff in Noah (rock angels!), but the movie struck me as an honest attempt from director Darren Aronofsky to engage with the Bible. Maybe his motives weren’t pure, but the movie I watched, Hollywood effects and all, was a real look at justice, grace, and the perception that God is silent. And rock angels.

Quicker take: Noah is a story in the Bible, and it maybe looked something like this. Strong maybe.

Best Music of 2014 So Far

Slow year for music so far, huh? And by “slow” I mean “terrible”. Of the albums charting in the Top 10 on Billboard this year, five of them have been worth buying. That’s out of close to a hundred albums. Maybe two of them (Crowder’s Neon Steeple and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum) have been truly great. There have been at least twice as many as that in each of the past four years through about this time. But that doesn’t mean there’s been nothing to celebrate. You just have to dig a little deeper than the charting albums. Here are the five best albums of 2014 so far:

Albums

bestsofar1John Mark McMillan, Borderland: McMillan has always been more than the “How He Loves” guy, but this album is the fullest, most complete manifestation of his brilliant vision so far. His always poetic lyrics are matched by the most inventive worship music of the past few years. It all points to the torn feeling we have between this world and the next, knowing we belong in one and not the other.

bestsofar2Liz Vice, There’s a Light: If McMillan’s Borderland has staked out the thoughtful worship corner of 2014, Vice’s There’s a Light takes the pure joy corner. We’ve heard R&B artists give praise to the Lord before (all the way back to Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers), but it’s been decades since the praise has been this direct and full of life. Vice seems to understand that the finer points of soul music were originally about declaring the wonders of God, and to that end she gives herself over completely.

bestsofar3Miranda Lambert, Platinum: You can have your Kacey Musgraves and your Ashley Monroe. I’ll let you take your Carrie Underwood and your Taylor Swift. I won’t miss them. Give me a Miranda Lambert, someone who, after she’s already in, conquers country music and all its clichés with one album.

bestsofar4Sharon Van Etten, Are We There: Listening to Are We There is like listening to a world being created. Van Etten on this album reminds me of Laura Marling last year on I Was an Eagle, constructing her songs layer by layer until she had gradually built intricate architecture within her songs. Both albums are about broken relationships, but where Marling’s was a slow burn, Are We There is a slow explosion.

bestsofar5The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream: There’s no better-titled album this year, that’s for sure. Listening to Lost in the Dream’s distorted guitars is like being lost in the best kind of dream, but only if your dreams were totally honest with you about the direction your life is going. Songs like “Under the Pressure” and “In Reverse” couldn’t be more appropriate for someone in my stage of life, just out of college and finding his way in a new job.

Songs

5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”: Better than candy.

Ariana Grande, “Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea)”: The kind of pop hit Mariah wanted to nail but never could. Yeah, I said it.

Duck Sauce, “NRG”: Better than coffee.

John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”: A pure declaration in both the music and the words of God’s sovereignty.

tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain”: Better than water from water fountains.

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of ) 2014

Ariana Grande, My Everything: Her last album was sublime, and “Problem” bodes well for this one.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers: My excitement for this album grew when the band re-released their lost 2010 album in January, and early single “Saturday’s Song” is incredible.

The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers: I haven’t been so hot on their past couple of albums, but if the title track is any indication, the NPs are back to their bruising pop ways.

Robert Plant, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar: This is here because he’s dating Patty Griffin, I think, and I’m hoping she shows up on this album.

Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams has been better as of late, and I hope he continues the trend.

Trailer of the Hour: Insterstellar

interstellar

Watch the full trailer here.

Why I’m pumped: Christopher Nolan is at the top of the A list right now when it comes to in-demand directors. This trailer for Interstellar is perfect proof of that. It gives you the general idea of what the movie is about, provides examples of the incredible visuals in store for you, and hints at the intelligence behind both its themes and its human relationships. Nolan can do whatever he wants, and Insterstellar looks like he’s taking advantage of that.

Why I’m worried: Nolan is a genius, but the strength of his movies is usually in the choreography of the editing. He’s never been adept at juggling the complexities that exist between two people, let alone whole families. Insterstellar looks to be about family. I hope that doesn’t get lost in whatever bag of tricks he’s using this time.

Stellar cast: Christopher Nolan has long had the cachet to assemble whoever he wants for his films. But this cast list goes to infinity and back: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain (Speaking of which, it’s been too long since she’s been a movie. However, that would be true even if she’d released one last week.), Michael Caine (Wouldn’t be a Nolan film without him.), Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Wes Bentley, David Oyelowo, John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Matt Damon, Marlon Brando, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Key & Peele, and Ricky Martin. Okay, I made some of those up, but come on- this movie better be 5 hours long, because I won’t accept less than a half hour of screen time for each those people.

Lucy (2014)

lucy1I like ideas. I support ideas. I want movies to explore ideas both visual and philosophical. I also like action. I support action. I want movies to blow my mind with action either smart or stupid. I even like action and ideas together in the same movie. Give me an Inception or a Terminator 2 with clever action and intriguing ideas. And give me a Die Hard or a Mission: Impossible, short on themes but with awesome action scenes. Just don’t give me Lucy.

Lucy has ideas, and it has action, but neither of them carry much weight. Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a student in Taiwan, who falls in with a bad dude and ends up a drug mule for a rich businessman. The drug his gang is pushing is a new and blue powder, and their business model is to sew packets of the drug into their mules’ abdomens and send them around the world with fake passports. Lucy gets this treatment, but an accident causes the drug to leak into her blood. And, as so often happens when one overdoses, Lucy starts gaining gradual control of her entire brain.

lucy2It’s a ridiculous premise, but an intriguing one. I’d love to watch a movie about someone who uses more than 10% of his or her brain. Think of the potential. A director could explore how that character’s emotions and empathy expand. They could parse through interesting ways the character takes advantage of their growing intelligence. I want to see that movie, and if it happens to have some action in it, all the better. Lucy isn’t that movie.

It’s not spoiling anything to tell you this, because it’s all over the trailer, but Lucy‘s way of handling this premise is to give Lucy telekinesis and the ability to exist outside of time (Sort of- it’s complicated, I think.). Again, it’s a ridiculous premise, and they handle it ridiculously, which would be fine, except director Luc Besson seems to think he’s handling it seriously. Knowing it’s a Luc Besson movie, you expect action scenes choreographed with the precision of a ballet. But nothing about any of the fight scenes or shootouts is creative or stimulating. All the chase scenes and derring-do between the Taiwanese gang and the police play fifth fiddle to Besson’s science-fiction themes, which are neither believable nor fun. You get the feeling Besson’s a doctoral student composing his thesis with a crayon.

lucy3I won’t ruin where Lucy ends up going, though part of me wants to do so in order to spare you agony of expecting anything great. Lucy started out frustratingly strong and promising, but as soon as Lucy absorbed the drug into her bloodstream, she basically became a robot, and I lost interest. It’s a waste of Scarlett Johansson’s range not to explore what expanding Lucy’s control of her brain would logically do. There’s a scene in the middle of the film that has Lucy’s cells leaving her body, causing Lucy to begin to disintegrate. It’s one of the worst scenes in the movie, made all the worse by the illogical way Besson decides to resolve it. But watching her cells float off into the air, I thought, there goes the action, there go the ideas.